The idea of ramen has captured the popular culinary imagination. But the Japanese bowl of noodles, meats, vegetables and a soul-soothing broth isn’t as widely available in Waterloo Region and Wellington County as is, say, pho, the Vietnamese soup. Unless you consider the throngs of soup-slurpers who descend on tiny Crafty Ramen in downtown Guelph.
The Macdonell Street restaurant, a diminutive 500 square-foot space of repurposed workshop benches and old school floors, conjures images of the joints that the late Anthony Bourdain trekked to in his explorations of food and its cultural and sociological idiosyncrasies. The noodle shop is first-to-market in Guelph, and many other places nearby, too. Ten or so stools and a few tables — only 26 seats — provide for about 130 people a day. “The busiest day was about 280 bowls,” says co-owner Jared Ferrall. “It’s hotter weather now and the students are gone, but we still do good numbers.”
Summer heat has prompted the appearance of four new cold bowls on the menu: a classic Hiyashi Chuka, a summer broth popular throughout Japan, and three Mazemen ramen of yuzu chicken, vegan sesame, and pulled pork with onsen tamago (soft-cooked egg). “We are making a different thicker noodle for these, that has more chew to it,” says Jared.
Crafty Ramen opened in February 2017. The restaurant is the culmination of the efforts of an industrious pair: Jared and Miki Ferrall. The couple met in Vancouver. Jared, originally from England, was doing his apprenticeship and Miki, from Iwate in northern Japan, and who had got her first job in a ramen shop at age 16, was working. “She was learning English, and I was doing my Red Seal,” Jared says. Since then, they’ve travelled the world. They spent four years exploring the food in Japan:
Jared did some time in Ramsay and Ducasse kitchens in Tokyo; they both attended Yamato Ramen School. Having absorbed Japan and toyed with the idea (coming very close to sealing the deal) of opening a food catering van in Tokyo, they ended up in Guelph, where they share responsibilities for operating Crafty Ramen. The name has a whimsical quality, Jared acknowledges. “It just seemed to fit. We wanted to stay playful but highlight that what we do is crafted.”
Crafty is simple too, he adds. “People come in, order, pay, sit down, eat, and leave.” That’s part and parcel of the rogue element in the sociology of ramen shops. “While there’s a lot of ramen in the Toronto area, there is nothing like this here… We’re in the tradition of a true ramen shop that’s innovative and chef-driven. Each wants to use the ingredients of the particular region. Actually, it’s the rogues of society in Japan that open up ramen shops. Everyone wants to do it their own way and has their own secret ingredients. That’s our style too. We don’t have seafood, for instance, and we use local producers for meats and vegetables. That’s our way.” Certainly driven by local ingredients, Crafty is no-frills, allowing staff to focus on food prep rather than running dishes to tables. You order up front and sit at a stool, and, actually, the space is larger than restaurants in Japan, says Jared. “There, you basically walk into a vending machine to buy a ticket.”
The noodles you’re eating at Crafty come from a clunky-looking noodle machine imported from Shinagawa, Tokyo. “The machines are a really cool little business,” Jared says of the green contraption. “A father and son make them. You visit and they put it together for you.” With the machine they make thin noodles, and occasionally fat ones for specials, but there is not a wide range: the philosophy is to do a few things very well. They blend Canadian all-purpose flour and a hard bread flour from K2 Mill (a 126-year-old milling operation in Beeton, Ontario, northeast of Orangeville), which, he says, is a strong and flavourful flour. The other key to great ramen is potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate (kansui, or lye water) — essential for a proper ramen noodle. “The alkalinity keeps the noodles from getting soft in the broth. It’s just wheat, water, kansui and salt.” The proof is often in the broth and rogues need not apply there. All the broths are made in-house and for assistance with that Crafty turns to neighbouring Trotter’s Butcher Shop for duck bones, pork bones and smoked pork trotters. The restaurant uses a reverse osmosis process to extract maximum flavour in making the broths.
Good ramen combines noodles, broth, fat, toppings and tare, an ingredient that contains soy sauce, miso or black vinegar. That tare, a flavour base ingredient, brings saltiness to ramen along with added umami, and a touch of sweet, sour, or spice depending on its composition. There can be a dozen or more ingredients, which means gigantic flavour. You might notice a dollop of it go into the bottom of your bowl in ramen shops. Such tradition is good, and the process is complex: days of brining and simmering kombu, first in 60-degree water for an hour to infuse seaweed flavour; then the kombu is removed and shiitakes are introduced for an hour before cherry tomatoes get their hour. It takes time and training to hit the correct flavour notes.
“The most popular ramen has been the Meat Lovers,” Jared says. That’s pork three ways with a side of tender chicken: pork jowl, pork chashu and salt- and sugar-cured pulled pork shoulder with 12-hour brined and one-hour 73-degree sous-vide chicken breast. “We use modern techniques, though we’re not modernist cuisine. Just good food,” he says. There are also green onion, pickled shiitakes and burnt sesame oil in a rich chicken, pork, and duck broth. There’s a spicy vegan tofu mapo ramen with baby bok choy, sesame tare and vegetable broth. Also on the menu is a delicate and light gyoza snack that is packed with big flavour. It’s a specialty of Miki’s and a family recipe that she has been making since she was quite young. Her karaage, Japanese fried chicken, is delicious as well and is from a family recipe: crunchy outside and tender and moist inside with a terrific crispy kimchi mayo. The dish contains chicken thighs marinated in soy, ginger and garlic for two hours. The marinade then becomes the liquid for the potato starch-corn starch batter for those little crispy bits on the outside. The dipping sauce is a Kewpie mayo, with crispy bits.
And yet it’s not authentic, Ferrall is quick to stress, citing a simple fact that people forget when looking for “authenticity” — after all, we’re 10,000 kilometers from Japan. Make it as authentic as possible, though: slurp the noodles and do it quickly. There’s a practical reason for this: the quick and simultaneous aspiration of air with the thin noodles captures the broth so it doesn’t fall away.
As the two-year mark for the business approaches, the Ferralls say they’re looking for a venue to open another Crafty Ramen — possibly in Kitchener — but they have to be sure they can address properly the details of a dish, from the noodles to the broth to the meats and seasoning.
Small may be traditional, but that doesn’t make it easy. Ramen expectations, though there are relatively few local examples, are high when it comes to deliciousness framed within the right atmosphere and ambiance of the restaurant. Currently, they’ve hit the mark, he acknowledges. “It’s a successful model for business, but we still have to strive for really good food at a reasonable price.”
17 Macdonell Street, Guelph
Tuesday–Thursday: 11:30 am–9 pm
Friday–Saturday: 11:30 am–9:30 pm